Q&A: Russian Activist Oleg Kozlovsky

by Noah Simon | February 11, 2014


A Rally at Bolotnaya Square in 2011

A Rally at Bolotnaya Square in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Albert Einstein Institution’s Research Department recently spoke with Russian activist Oleg Kozlovsky. Mr. Kozlovsky writes and blogs about politics, democracy, and human rights and was a co-founder of the Oborona youth movement that aims to form a democratic political system in Russia.

What are some of the protests or movements currently in Russia that may be overshadowed by the Sochi Olympics?

There are several important things happening in Russia these days. One is the Bolotnaya Case trials. A group of eight protesters is awaiting their sentence on February 21 and two prominent activists, Sergey Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev are to be tried under charges of conspiring to organize a Georgian-sponsored riot. This series of trials is one of the most important ones in respect of prospects for a civil society in Russia. A lot of people will judge Putin’s political course by the sentences (the verdicts will undoubtedly be “guilty”).

The second problem is the effective shutdown of Dozhd (Rain) TV channel. It has been the only professional and independent TV outlet that covered sensitive political issues, from mass protests to repressive laws to political prisoners. Until recently, they faced little visible opposition from the regime, but two weeks ago, soon after they aired a show based on [Alexey] Navalny’s investigation of high-level corruption, a massive campaign started against Dozhd. As of now, they report losing 80% of their audience due to cable and satellite operators removing them. If they can’t change this situation, they will probably have to close down quite soon.

How does the political opposition in Russia view the Olympic games in Sochi? Are there plans by the political opposition to use the added media attention to advance domestic issues or gain more support?

Most opposition groups have criticized the corruption and deficiency of the project. Boris Nemtsov and Alexey Navalny published extensive reports on the issue. Many also point to environmental damage and dangerous precedents it has set, such as the effective suspension of many constitutional rights in the region for the duration of the games in the name of security. At the same time, most opposition leaders say they wish the games to be a success. Although, some activists have a more radical position calling for a boycott of all Sochi-related events.

It seems that LGBT activists have been most successful with making their voice heard during the game. The international attention has been largely focused on their hardships in recent months. While the recent campaign against LGBT is disgusting and barbarian, it is by no means the only human rights problem in Russia. Unfortunately, neither freedom of expression, nor fairness of elections, nor the judiciary and police systems have managed to gain any significant interest internationally. As far as I know, no major protests or other events have been planned for the duration of the Olympics, either because opposition groups don’t want to be blamed for “backstabbing” the country in this moment, or simply for the lack of proper preparation and planning.

It has been said that the security agencies have a list of people who have participated in opposition protests and will not grant them “Olympic passports”. Is this true? If so, do you know anyone who has tried to go to the games and has been denied? 

I don’t know such cases. At some point, activist Alexander Baturin was denied the so-called “fan’s passport” (which allows you to travel to the Olympic area), but after he published this, the decision was overturned. No explanations were given. On the other hand, a well-known environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko was arrested a few days before the Olympics on trumped-up charges (first he was accused of thievery, then it was changed to using foul language) for 15 days, apparently to prevent him from organizing any protests.

What are some measures the Russian government used recently in effort to suppress political dissent?

I’ve already mentioned the Bolotnaya Case; Navalny’s trials are also an example of this “regular” method of repression. Opposition parties (Party of 5th of December and People’s Alliance) have been repeatedly denied registration. A new law came into force on February 1 that allows the government to block any website without a court ruling that publishes information about unsanctioned protests. Some other bills have been introduced recently in the Duma [parliament], which, for instance, abolish presumption of innocence and adversarial system as something allegedly “alien to the Russian criminal process.”

Are authorities elsewhere in Russia seeking to silence the political opposition during the Olympics? If so, how?

It seems that in general the authorities try to keep repression to a minimum these days, so that it doesn’t mar the Olympics. However, they also make it clear that there will be no opening of the regime. They refused to allow any routes for a protest march on February 2 other than the traditional ones. The police keep arresting protesters in Moscow every day: about 30 on February 6, more than 20 on February 7, several dozens today, etc.

Anything else you would like to add about the political situation in Russia?

There is a widespread expectation among Russian activists, and general population, that Putin had taken a softer stance on the opposition in the run up to the Olympics, but he will crack down on it as soon as the Winter Games are over. Whether it is his true plan or not, the situation may get more tense this spring and summer (when the election campaign to Moscow City Duma is also due).